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Berry Watch 2013 // Part 3: Red Elderberries

As I’ve watched the berries ripen in the forest this summer, I’ve found that different berry shrubs have different sensations of time. Some berries, such as blackberries, red huckleberries, and salal berries, treat their time on this planet as a leisurely, extended celebration. They ripen gradually and in succession, leaving some fruits green while others sweeten in the sun. The window of time for gathering the ripened fruit is long; I know that I can observe, document, and taste them at a slow and measured pace.

There are other berries that treat their ripening in a live-fast-and-die-young kind of way. Every berry will ripen at once, will live a plump and happy life for a glorious few weeks, and then will shrivel and decay. From what I’ve observed at Stanley Park, this seems to be the life of the red elderberry.

{Note: if you plan to forage red elderberries, have a look at the cautionary blurb at the bottom of this page.}  

I first started to notice red elderberry shrubs at Stanley Park around April. Many of these shrubs have grown into tree-like formations. Their leaves are long, pointed ovals that hang in a relaxed, friendly manner. The foliage makes the tree look slightly tropical – I was reminded of the leaves of a “money tree” houseplant. My eye was also drawn to the clusters of little white flowers adorning the branches. These flowers can be used for medicinal and culinary purposes – a bit of “elderflower” googling connects me not only to pictures, but to recipes for cordial, wine, fritters, and cakes. Give it a try and see what you can find!

 My first picture of a red elderberry shrub. I believe I took it in April (though I didn't have the date set correctly on my camera then!) Note the little white elderflowers in bloom.

My first picture of a red elderberry shrub. I believe I took it in April (though I didn't have the date set correctly on my camera then!) Note the little white elderflowers in bloom.

The transition from elderflower to elderberry began in May. The areas that once held flowers were now clusters of tiny green nuggets. Each nugget looks like a mini-acorn, or a tiny squash. The clusters look like the stems of grapes:

 A red elderberry shrub in May. These little green nuggets will eventually become red berries.

A red elderberry shrub in May. These little green nuggets will eventually become red berries.

By the end of June, the elderberries were ripe:

 Red elderberries in late June.

Red elderberries in late June.

As you can see, the berries in the picture above have a plump and appealing look. However, when I returned to Stanley Park about three weeks later, the elderberries had peaked and were looking shriveled. These past-their-prime berries reminded me of Nerds candy!

 Only 3 weeks later, these elderberries are on their way out.

Only 3 weeks later, these elderberries are on their way out.

Though I continue to enjoy, the slow, gradual ripening of berries such as salal, I think that the quick-to-mature, quick-to-decay nature of red elderberries is important to ponder. While the shrubs were producing their luscious berries (the month of June), I was spending copious amounts of time indoors, completing a work project that required a computer. I didn’t have a chance to visit the park as often as I hoped, and I didn’t get to observe the transition of the elderberry shrubs as thoroughly as I would have liked. I think about the region shared by the red elderberry and I – the south coast of BC, where the daylight hours are slowly begin to contract and sunlight is a privilege – and I wonder: what other brevities of nature are slipping through our fingers? I guess it's time to turn the computer off for the day, go outside, and soak up some Vitamin D...

 * A cautionary note about red elderberries: 

Almost all parts of red elderberry shrubs, aside from the fruits and flowers, contain toxins. These toxins are also in the seeds of the fruit. Some sources cite red elderberries as poisonous, and some say they are okay to eat as long as they’ve been cooked and de-seeded. I recommend doing a bit of research and using your own good judgment if you plan on consuming these berries. I think that the summary of red elderberries on this Eat the Weeds post (written by experienced forager Green Deane) is quite good – just scroll about halfway down the page and have a read.